Former Vice President Al Gore has claimed the national spotlight as a champion for climate change issues. Though many scientists appreciate his efforts to raise awareness of global warming, some take issue with his data and conclusions.
Former Vice President Al Gore has claimed the national spotlight as a champion for climate change issues. Though many scientists appreciate his efforts to raise awareness of global warming, some take issue with his data and conclusions. Paramount Classics
Former Vice President Al Gore goes to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to testify on climate change before a joint meeting of two house committees. Gore has championed the issue of global warming for decades; he has books and an Oscar-winning documentary to his credit.
Now that he is firmly in the spotlight on this issue, so are his detractors. They include some scientists who are concerned about climate change, but have raised questions about Al Gore's data and some of his conclusions. NPR's Science Correspondent Richard Harris spoke with Renee Montagne to help sort through some of the questions.
Would you say that Al Gore – given all of his history with this subject – is a credible voice on global climate change?
Gore is a lay person, he is not a scientist, and he's careful to say that. But that said, he does get the big picture very well. Most scientists say he really can see the forest for the trees.
Human activities are contributing to climate change, those changes will become more pronounced as the time goes on, and it is possible that those changes could be severe. But that said, scientists do quibble a little bit about some of the facts that he draws to make those arguments.
Can you give us some examples of some of the concerns that scientists have?
I saw Al Gore give a talk at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco last December. He was cheered by this enormous audience of scientists, who were really excited to hear his message that it's time to take global warming seriously.
But after the talk, a couple of [the scientists] came up to me and said, you know, "He didn't exactly get the science right."
Gore said that Arctic ice could be gone entirely in 34 years, and he made it seem like a really precise prediction. There are certainly scary predictions about what's going to happen to Arctic sea ice in the summertime, but no one can say "34 years." That just implies a degree of certainty that's not there. And that made a few scientists a bit uncomfortable to hear him making it sound so precise.
There are also questions about Al Gore's estimates as to how much the sea levels will rise.
Yes, in fact, in his documentary he talks about what the world will look like – Florida and New York – when the sea level rises by 20 feet. But he deftly avoids mentioning the time frame for which that might happen. When you look at the forecast of sea-level rise, no one's expecting 20 feet of sea-level rise in the next couple of centuries, at least. So that's another thing that makes scientists a little bit uneasy; true, we have to be worried about global sea-level rise, but it's probably not going to happen as fast as Gore implies in his movie.
One other dramatic moment in the film has to do with Hurricane Katrina.
Indeed. Gore implies – he never says, but he implies – that Katrina was due to human-induced global warming. And I think if a scientist were to talk about this, most scientists would say, "These are the kinds of things that we expect to see more of as a result of global warming," but people are careful not to attribute specific storms or events to global warming.
Again, Gore doesn't do that exactly, but he sort of leaves the impression, and it's a very lawyerly way he does this. If you actually read it word for word, you can't say, "This he said wrong." But he leaves the impression that Katrina was [a result of] global warming and I think scientists don't go that far.
Is this partly cultural in the sense that, by nature and by profession, scientists care about all of the details?
I think it's partly cultural, and I think that in that sense, Al Gore is very well attuned to the culture of Washington, D.C. The culture of Washington, D.C. is: "Don't do anything unless there is a crisis." And that's been the problem with global warming for all these years: It's something serious to be worried about – the worst case scenarios are pretty scary – but Al Gore has realized that if you want to get attention, you really have to focus on the crisis. You have to make people worry about things maybe a little bit more than scientists would say.
Is there some element of – if you will – professional jealousy here?
Among the scientists? No. I think the scientists are actually pretty grateful by and large that Gore has succeeded in bringing their issue to the public's attention. But scientists do care very much about how precise the details are. And when it's not exactly right, they bristle a little bit. But, [that's] the difference between a popularizer, like Gore, and scientists, for whom the details really are what's most important.